Book review: The German War: A Nation Under Arms: 1939-45

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cv_the_german_warNicolas Stargardt’s The German War: A Nation Under Arms 1939-45, is a social history of an extraordinary kind, providing an English language account of what in effect was ordinary life in Germany during the second world war, within a shattering context of bombs, genocide, food shortages and mass moral turpitude.

Stargardt quotes a German soldier writing to his fiancée: “The life of this generation seems to me to be measured by catastrophes”. This note came toward the end of the war, and sums up how the attitudes of many Germans evolved during the period of the war. Originally, there was widespread disquiet at the start of another war with memories of the defeat and starvation of World War 1 still all too real. The national mood changed though, toward euphoria, when Hitler’s armies won stunning victories in Poland, France, Norway and the Low Countries.

But as the bombs started raining down on city after city from as many as 1,000 British and American bombers, morale slumped. In May 1942, even before bombing of civilian targets became widespread, the Swiss consul in Cologne, Franz-Rudolf Weiss noted that civilian morale was “well below zero”. However, as occurred in Britain in 1940-41, the bombing developed a strong resilience among the population, with local and national authorities and ordinary folk rushing in to help. In the March 5 raid on Essen, Carola Reisner was quoted as saying that it was “really amazing with what heroic resilience and lack of complaint everything is endured here”.

The fact that this 681-page book (inclusive of bibliography and notes) includes a mass of personal reflections taken from personal letters and diaries of soldiers from the rank and file to generals to ordinary folk, artists and poets is but one illustration of the deep shaft of research that has been undertaken by Stargardt. The book also includes the results of in-depth research of official documents, including some from the Security Service (SD) , a security section of the SS in charge of foreign and domestic intelligence and espionage which produced frequent commentaries on the social conditions within the country as the war was waged.

A profoundly important result of reading this book is the understanding that ordinary Germans “knew”. They knew of the deportation and massacres of Jews, undesirable citizens of their own country and thousands of others in occupied countries. They knew of the use of slave labour and the inhumane conditions forced upon these peoples, and they knew that the peoples of occupied countries were starving, in order to maintain food supplies for Germans. And at the end of the war, Stargardt clearly documents that many, if not most Germans, turned a blind eye – “we just followed orders” or “this was a war brought upon us – not our fault”.

This is an outstanding and important history written by one of the foremost historians of Nazi Germany.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

The German War: A National Under Arms, 1939-45
by Nicholas Stargardt
Published by The Bodley Head
ISBN: 9781847921000

Book Review: Remembering Gallipoli, by Christopher Pugsley & Charles Farrell

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The value of recorded oral history and the written word come together in Remembering Gallipoli: Interviews with New Zealand Gallipoli Veterans, by Christopher Pugsley and Charles Farrell.

The book is based on 131 surviving interviews made, mostly in 1982, of Gallipoli veterans as part of the research that was the backbone of the Maurice Shadbolt play Once on Chanuk Bair  This and other material have been used in other books including Men of Gallipoli, by Charles Farrell, as well as in a TVNZ documentary. There are also a number of other historians and scholars that have benefited from the material which is carefully archived in a number of places, including the National Army Museum at Waiouru.

This book has been carefully constructed, so that the memories of the men are linked to the various battles and other significant aspects of the Gallipoli campaign. Sometimes the comments from a single veteran will appear in different chapters because the individual will have memories of a number of different incidents. This allows for the whole campaign to be understood chronologically. Thus instead of an historian’s prose, the story unfolds through the words of veterans who were there, while staying in line with how the campaign developed and ended.

Authors’ notes are used to fill in detail of events, creating context for the veterans’ comments. Pugsley and Farrell also contribute to the background and context with their introduction. In particular Pugsley traces how he got involved with the history of the Gallipoli campaign while still a serving officer in the Army.

Photographs are well used in this book, very often adding to the personal perspectives of veterans’ accounts.

Much of the collective memory is harrowing, some of it humorous in a black kiwi sort of way. But the real quality of this book is that it allows us 100 years later to “ hear the voices” that were at Gallipoli.

Review by Lincoln Gould

Remembering Gallipoli: Interviews with New Zealand Gallipoli Veterans
by Christopher Pugsley and Charles Ferrall
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9780864739919

Book Review: Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, by Antony Beevor

cv_ardennes_1944Available in bookshops nationwide.

If you are of a certain age, the most you would probably know about the 1944 German offensive in the Ardennes would have come from the film Battle of the Bulge. It was a good movie, but when you read Antony Beevor’s Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble, you will understand how “once over lightly” the film was, with regards the history of the battle.

The Allied forces, having liberated France, were pushing on a very wide front toward the Ruhr and the German heartland. Their main focus was from the North with the British and Canadian armies and from the south with the American Armies. At the centre, in Belgium’s deeply wooden Ardennes, the line was being lightly held by American troops, largely being rested from other areas. There was a major breakdown in Allied intelligence that had failed to identify the build-up of two panzer armies designed to break through the American lines, drive to the Meuse, split the American and British/Canadian armies and force another Dunkirk.

The attack was a major surprise to the Allies just before Christmas, with bad weather keeping the overwhelming Allied airpower on the ground and troops frozen in their foxholes as the German tanks rolled over them. Despite early and serious setbacks, American troops managed to hold at crucial points, most famously at Bastogne. Despite the often sour relationships between American and British generals, very often created by Field Marshall Montgomery, the allies very quickly developed a plan, moved whole armies toward the battle; the weather cleared, the allied planes flew and the Germans ran out of petrol. There is no doubt that the Battle of the Ardennes was won by the Americans, as opposed to the combined allied armies. The Germans lost hundreds of thousands of troops and it was the last time that any real threat was mounted in the west against the allied armies.

Above is the short version of what happened but Antony Beevor’s book has much more to it than that. He has a great reputation for uncovering the unvarnished detail of all sides of major second world war battles, and Ardennes 1944 is another example. The book begins by shaping the context with an account of the breakout from the Normandy beachheads, the drive across France and the liberation of Paris. The political situation between the various forces is carefully explained and Beevor does not hold back in his criticisms of various key figures, particularly Montgomery, whose ego at times could have caused catastrophe if it had not been blunted by the ever diplomatic Eisenhower.

The fine detail of analysis of the actual battle, or battles, during the winter days through Christmas and into the New Year is where this book stands out. Within the Ardennes forest there are many small villages and almost every one became a scene of fierce fighting, many atrocities to soldiers of both sides and particularly against the villagers. The very clear maps within the book greatly help in overcoming the literal fog of this battle.

Some years ago I travelled by train from Dusseldorf in Germany to Paris, through the Ardennes. I remember at the time remarking on the many small villages that we passed. It was summer, but the impression was one of darkness and ruggedness. All troop movements in 1944 would have been largely restricted to narrow roads, causing attack lines to be strung out and difficult to manoeuvre. Snow, sleet and mud did not help either side. Beevor records and explains; he has researched letters and records of individuals fighting on both sides as well as official sources. There are many personal touches.The reality and horror of war is made very plain.

Hollywood could well take this book and make even a better film of the Battle of the Bulge.

Review by Lincoln Gould

Ardennes 1944
by Antony Beevor
Published by Penguin Viking
ISBN 9780670918645

Book Review: Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front, by Glyn Harper

cv_dark_journeyAvailable in bookstores nationwide.

The importance of Dark Journey as an anchor for the average kiwi’s understanding of the New Zealand effort on the Western Front in the First World War is possibly greater in this 2015 edition, eight years after the first edition was published.

It has become a truism that New Zealanders’ conscious connection with the First World War has been almost wholly focused on the defeat on Gallipoli. Glyn Harper began to widen this focus with his studies, Massacre at Passchendaele(2000) and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme(2003). He used material from these two books in the Dark Journey, while adding intensively research material on the Battle of Bapaume.

When first published in 2007, Dark Journey would have been for many in this country, a revelation that there was a history, a glorious one, beyond Gallipoli. Now of course, there have been many other books written since 2007 on the New Zealanders’ deep and bloody involvement in Flanders. However, Harper’s book remains a pivotal work as we lead up to the 100thanniversaries of the great battles of the Somme and Passchendaele.

The great value of Harper’s work is the deep research of every aspect of these important battles. The military and political backgrounds of the British, French and Germans is well studied and so too is the personal involvement of officers directing the strategies and fighting the battles. Linking the hopes and fears of Field Marshall Haig with those of the New Zealand commanders such as Godley and Russell is very important to understand the strategic and tactical aspects of the battles. But to further combine the hopes and fears of soldiers who actually fought the battles, gleaned largely from letters home, creates a ” battle personality”, which leads to an untarnished understanding of the kind of war fought at that time.

The detail of troop movements, tactical changes resulting from experience and weaponry are all studied in this 544-page book, with Harper not afraid of laying blame for foul-ups and praising when military professionalism resulted in success. And it is not one-sided analysis: Harper has been meticulous in his research of German sources, which add considerable balance to the accounts of battles won and lost.

Harper claims that New Zealanders were among the best troops the British army had during the First World War. They played an important part, not only in the terrible battles of the Somme and Passchendaele, but also in the victories of the second Battle of the Somme . The capture by the New Zealand Division of Bapaume is one event that led to huge praise for the kiwis. Harper describes the battle: “Though the struggle to capture Bapaume is a relatively unknown battle in New Zealand’s military history, it does not deserve this obscurity.” More than 10,000 New Zealanders  took part, there are some 800 buried in military graves around the town and 2,000 were injured. Another huge sacrifice for New Zealand, among the many of the First World War.

With Harper’s book, we have the opportunity to understand more of this sacrifice.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Dark Journey: Passchendaele, The Somme and the New Zealand Experience on the Western Front
by Glyn Harper
Published by HarperCollins NZ
ISBN 9781460750438

Book Review: Gallipoli, by Peter Fitzsimons

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Peter Fitzsimons’ Gallipoli is very Australia-centric. This is one of most intriguing aspects of the book.

It does not try to suggest that only Australians fought at Gallipoli, but the flavour, the perspective, and the prose all have an Aussie accent and use of words − sometimes stark and brutal, other times colourful − that could only be from one country and one time.

There have, of course, been many books written about this failed military adventure, but this is not just “another Gallipoli book”. It is a fascinating, highly informative book, with deep emotive characteristics. The latter is something Fitzsimons is famous for. His other books, such as Kokoda, describe events now etched deeply into Australia’s culture.
Gallipoli is a lengthy tome, at 824 pages, including notes, references, bibliography and index. This may seem overlong. But Fitzsimons puts the landings at Anzac Cover and Cape Hellas and the subsequent eight months of bitterness, into the deep context of the politics that surrounded the ill-fated campaign; including the failure of the British and French navies to break past the Turkish guns lining each side of the Dardanelles, immediately prior to the campaign. He captures the historic context of Turkey as the Ottoman Empire is failing. The politics from the British, Australian and Turkish perspective are woven into the story, in relation to each significant point in the book. Thus, Churchill gets a bad rap, and Kitchener’s refusal to order the right type of high explosives, is one cause of his eventual downfall.

Of course, all of the familiar Gallipoli stories are covered. Did the landings take place at the right place? Probably not, if one of the simple maps included in the book is accepted. The “burial truce”, when Turks and Anzac worked together to bury their mountains of dead is another example of a familiar story. Although these and similar events are basically familiar, Fitzsimons adds considerable detail, often omitted from other accounts.

The oft-told story of the withdrawal of the ANZAC, Indian and British Forces from ANZAC Cove is an intriguing example of the added detail that Fitzsimons has brought to bear from his obviously extensive research, using archives, battlefield reports, and personal diaries and letters from every level of the combatant armies – from Turkish and Anzac privates to Imperial generals, politicians and journalists. The intensively detailed planning by Lieutenant-Colonel Cyril Brudenell White, one of the few officers that gets a good rap throughout the book, is illuminating to read, and the fact that it was so carefully and successfully followed by the evacuating armies is astounding.

There are many personal accounts and human touches from both sides of no-man’s land woven into the overall narrative. And the epilogue traces many of the characters, both ANZAC and Turk, beyond the Gallipoli experience to their respective post-war fates.
This may be an Aussie-centric book, but it adds to the overall understanding of what, why and how the Gallipoli campaign was fought and how the ANZAC legend was created.

Reviewed by Lincoln Gould

Gallipoli
by Peter Fitzsimons
Published by Random House
ISBN 9781741666595